Rude, I think, as the guy next to me physically claims two-thirds of the bench, leaving me to squeeze my wide frame into one corner and struggle not to fall off or elbow the jerk in the face as I pull my oxfords on, right, then left, and lace them, left, right. My mother and I are sitting back-to-back on one of those wide benches they have in JFK so there’s plenty of room for everyone to sit and put their shoes on after passing through security, but the geniuses at the planning department didn’t account for this gigantic specimen of a Southern father trying and failing to get his kids to quiet down as he buckles his boots, three rugrats orbiting him as if caught in his gravity field.
“Where do these people come from?” I ask my mother as we stride through the Terminal, searching for our gate, which is inevitably as far away from the security checkpoint as possible. Wherever one my access through the first thirty gates, neither we nor anyone we know have ever gone there.
“Just forget about it,” she says up at me. We make quite a pair. I’m 6’5″, she’s 5’6″; in public, a suit jacket and a broad-brimmed fedora expand my silhouette to downright threatening dimensions, while her sweater and small purse somehow make her seem even smaller. I can be surly, especially when travelling and overwhelmed by crowds and loud noises; she’s quiet but a master of politeness, even friendliness, at least until we start getting the bureaucratic fake-smile-accompanying-bad-news stuff, in which case she introduces her wrath (which I know well) to new audiences. She walks at a quick pace, occasionally slipping through gaps in the foot traffic that would become tackle-takedowns if I attempted them; I have to swing wide for open waters and join her afterward.
We’re running late, and she’s secretly irritated about it. I’m always tardy, and she never is. I have tried to explain to her the joy of being late, the way in which G-d is open to those who themselves are open, and she always raises an eyebrow and tells me to save it for the other Rabbis. So when I went to sleep last night I wholly intended to submit to my mother’s preference: 5:30 reveille, 6:30 on the road, 7:00 at the airport, 8:30 flight. Due to the laws of physics pertaining only to alarm clocks we woke at 6:30 and now it’s 8:15 and I’m dodging one of those indoor cars they use to shuttle the elderly and the infirm around the terminal as my mother points at the square sign announcing Gate 2 as if it were the very stamp of imminent redemption. They’re already boarding, but the line is long, and we have never met anyone who is a medallion member or sits in zones one through seven; they must all fly to Walla Walla or something from those first thirty gates.
I need to use the restroom and I leave my heavy sandwich-laden backpack with my mother as I scramble back up the terminal. The sweat band of my hat is damp with nervous perspiration and I’m overheating in my four layers. I should have left my jacket with mom as well. The bathroom is closed for maintenance. Wonderful. I have no idea where to find another one until a kind elderly woman notes my distress and directs me to Sam’s Shoes, a large establishment right across the wide terminal hallway that has a restroom on premises. I make for the store, eyeing its dusty window display with anxiety. The interior is no better. It is a shoe store from a different country and a different age, recently deserted. Haphazard stacks of shoeboxes clutter the leather air. A counter messy with laces and rags sits in one corner next to a polishing chair whose back reaches the low ceiling. A door in the rear wall is labeled with the male and female bathroom symbols and I feel like a lummox as I drag through the skewed racks, nearly knocking something over at every corner.
Inching around the last bend, I almost walk straight into him. He is bent over, heaving boxes into place under a display of ghastly beige leather slip-ons festooned with maroon buckles. He wears a flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and his aged, pockmarked face and bloodshot eyes are framed by mutton chops and a feathery moustache, both greying. A worn flat cap tops his head. He stares at me, unmoving, and I get the absurd sense that I am for some reason unwelcome in his store. I move with all my grace to slip past him and the heel of my shoe nips his. “Sorry,” I mutter and open the door to the ancient bathroom whose light is turned on by (Lord help us) pulling a chain. Once I’m done I wash my hands and pull the door closed behind me. I say the words of the Asher Yatzar, all thoughts of my creator driven from my head by the words “New York” and “Singapore” clattering out of the airport P.A. The man is not where he was before and I glance up to find him by the counter. I nod in the friendly but reserved way known to all introverts and begin picking my way toward the store’s exit which I can detect by a slight waft of air and a few rays of white light that manage to diffract around a tower of wafer-soled fashionable sell-out Steve Maddens.
I feel someone stepping on the heel of my shoe. I jump, turn around, and find him staring me straight in the eye, unflinching. I am afraid. I turn back to the exit and begin walking faster, and I feel another tug at my heel. I am almost at the exit as he steps on me again and this time pulls my shoe clean off as I hop into the foot traffic of the terminal, glad to be among people once more. My shoe comes skidding across the white tile, kicked by the stumpy man, hands akimbo, indignation on his face. A name tag at his chest reads “Sam.” I stick my foot in my shoe and my face in his face. I can feel myself towering over him impressively and my expression reads “what in the world is wrong with you.” He shoves me in the chest with both hands. He is surprisingly strong. I lose my balance and step back. The woman’s voice on the P.A. sounds impatient as she announces final boarding for my flight. I can’t imagine what my mother is doing.
“You stepped on me,” Sam says. His eyes don’t leave mine for a second. He is unbearably ugly.
“I said I was sorry,” I say, and it somehow sounds lame, even to me.
“No, now you are sorry,” he says, but he doesn’t smile. He is not saying it as I would, with self-effacement and humor, a gesture of goodwill. He is pleased by my discomfort. I can’t handle it and turn to go, but he grabs my forearm with an iron grip and pulls me down close to his face. I smell garlic on his breath. I ball my fist. He smiles with horrible, ruined teeth and lets me go. He looks up at me, chin sticking out, full of pride. I am suddenly certain, for some reason, that he is Jewish. An inescapable urge to embrace him sweeps over me, but he is already stepping away. He shakes his head, as if I will never understand, and he returns to his store.
My mother ushers me onboard, embarrassed to have held up the flight. I fall into my seat in a daze. It is for some reason unbearable to adjust the air conditioning nozzle, or to slip my book into the seat-back pocket in front of me, or to hear the safety demonstration. I put in earplugs and close my eyes.
I think of him for thirty thousand feet, and beyond.
Featured Image from Flickr